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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Ungdomshuset

In December 2006, a few months after I had left København, Denmark’s capital experienced the largest public disturbances the country had seen since World War II.  And it all revolved around an anarchist social center, Ungdomshuset—literally, “youth house.”  Denmark is a relatively prosperous country, most people aren’t afraid of going hungry or homeless, yet when the city government moved ahead with plans to evict and demolish the building, thousands of people put their lives on the line to fight back.  For many of them, it was the only non-commercial cultural space they had—the only space where they were truly free. Perhaps they had gone to their first punk concert here years ago, maybe they were able to stay here a while after running away from an abusive home.  Maybe they had never even come here but were glad that such a place existed.

Ungdomshuset was first and foremost a youth house but it did not suffer from a lack of history.  From 1897, the building had been a Folkets Hus—a People’s House—integral to the radical labor movement.  In 1982 it was given over to the youth group that formed Ungdomshuset.  Once the city, which had come into ownership of the building with the decline of the labor movement, began trying to sell the property at 69 Jagtvej, the Ungdomshuset folks put up a banner reading: “For sale along with 500 autonomist, stone-throwing violent psychopaths from hell.” Perhaps some buyers were scared off, but fate spun out an insulting twist: a Christian sect bought the property and gleefully rejected all attempts at compromise, even turning down offers to buy the building.

Ungdomshuset blir!

A flyer calling for solidarity with Ungdomshuset.

Hundreds of punk anarchists came from across Europe to defend Ungdomshuset.  Thousands of people barricaded the street or formed black blocs and marched on police lines.  They protected themselves with masks and helmets, in violation of Danish law, and fought the police with rocks and molotov cocktails.  The police beat protestors viciously, and admitted to using a potentially lethal form of tear gas.  Three hundred people were arrested.  Numerous police and demonstrators were injured.  One protestor had a finger blown off by a teargas canister.  Protests against the Danish government took place throughout the world, and arson or vandal attacks occurred against Danish consulates in Greece, Nederland, and other countries.  The eviction would not come for some months yet, but people had shown the state—and more importantly themselves—what kind of resistance to expect.  And it was not just young punk anarchists coming out in support.  Although many so-called normal Danes were shocked by the rioting, thousands of others came out and participated in peaceful, candlelight vigils organized by Ungdomshuset supporters to create a diversity of resistance and broaden the possibilities for involvement. And many people from outside the movement, people we often presume to be alienated by violent resistance, took part in the riots themselves, glad to have an opportunity to vent their rage against the cops.

Police finally evicted Ungdomshuset on 1 March, 2007, and the city demolished the building five days later.  The eviction was backed by a military helicopter and special forces who sprayed the entire building in a flame retardant foam to neutralize the molotovs.  Supporters of Ungdomshuset rioted again, setting up burning barricades throughout the Nørrebro district and at Christiania, prompting the police to declare martial law in both these districts.  Afterwards, police raided several addresses around the city, arrested the members of the legal support group, and rounded up a total of 690 people, including 140 foreigners, on the presumption that they posed a danger.  Plainclothes police agents from at least four other countries were brought in to aid the repression.  It was an instant of warfare, a rupture in the illusion of democracy and the tranquility we are supposed to believe in.

Aren’t I glad to have been a part of this?  Ha.  Comically, when I passed through Denmark I dismissed Ungdomshuset as a worthless place, not so long before it made history.  I approached the brooding edifice on a day an event was supposed to be held, only to find the doors locked.  Around back some punks looked at me like I was stupid and muttered a few unhelpful words, and I left.  Fuck ‘em.  It was clearly my loss, and I should have known that many things worth finding are not encountered on the first try.  There is of course something to be said for friendliness, a trait that is sorely lacking in many circles.  But in tackling the problem of isolation, a problem I had identified as one of the biggest obstacles to the anarchist movement in the US, I assumed the solution could be seen through a lens of accessibility.  Was it possible that Ungdomshuset was not an accessible place for people outside a certain subculture, but could still inspire a fairly broad popular rebellion?

I don’t begrudge a space its subculture, and in fact every social space has its own subcultural norms and aesthetics, whether it admits to them or not.  Since workers have been turned into consumers, there is no unifying proletarian culture anyway, and attempts to cater to mainstream culture only indenture us to the bourgeois values that infuse that culture and the corporate media institutions that shape it.  We need, after all, a pluralistic revolution, which will be waged by a plurality of cultures in resistance.  Myself, I probably would have been more comfortable, upon gaining entrance and acceptance, in punked-out Ungdomshuset than in hippy-infested Christiania, but I spent most of my time in the latter because that is where I was welcomed.

To what extent can a space tie itself to a single subculture while still being socially powerful?  How can a group of outcasts be welcoming to others while maintaining their autonomy?  And if a lack of accessibility is not the primary cause of the isolation of today’s revolutionaries, what is?

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